Hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled the country in the past two weeks and Western leaders have issued increasingly ominous warnings of a nuclear attack – but some foreign tourists have confusedly decided now is the perfect time to holiday there.
“Hi guys! I got a visa for Russia and I really want to explore Moscow because I might move here. However, I only know a few people who live there and they are mostly busy. So would someone like to show me around and be the impromptu tour guide my;” A young woman recently wrote in a Facebook group for expats in Moscow.
“I want the full Russian experience (in a good, relatively safe way),” he wrote – immediately sending most of the group into a collective meltdown.
The woman, whom The Daily Beast is not naming to respect her privacy, later clarified in comments to this reporter that she knew her planned vacation was “unfortunately” timed, but said she had dropped so much money to get visa she was determined to visit anyway.
“It’s a ‘let’s see what happens’ kind of thing,” he wrote.
She is certainly not alone. While Russian social media groups catering to foreigners have largely morphed in recent months from forums with information on upcoming nightclub events to a sounding board for urgent questions about pet relocation services, border interrogations and escape plans , these more discouraging posts are often interspersed with questions that seem to expose a significant disconnect.
“I can’t imagine a better time to visit Russia, I hope it goes well for you,” one commenter wrote in response to the woman’s post described above.
“There were a lot less people on the subway today too. Where did everyone go;” one commenter wrote on a popular Telegram channel for expats in response to a photo of an eerily empty Moscow.
Tour operators apparently eager for business in the midst of a recession often post photos of scenes far removed from the war — the Russky Bridge in Vladivostok, “remote destinations” like Altai — while infusing their posts with starker reminders of the reality of war.
“Currently, international credit cards (Visa, Master Card, American Express) issued outside of Russia cannot be used to purchase goods and services in Russia. Russian airlines and hotels are now inaccessible via major online booking engines,” wrote UK-based travel agent Go Russia, which shared a Ukrainian flag on its page in a gesture of solidarity following the widespread invasion of Putin.
The company’s once-upbeat posts seemed to hint at a sense of calm surrender as the war dragged on, often opening with a reminder that “it’s still possible to travel to Russia.”
“Are tourists welcome at the moment??” a seemingly confused English woman wrote in response.
Other surprise visitors suggested their desire to visit the country only intensified after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine took center stage on the world stage.
“Curious about what Americans [sic] experiences have lived in Russia by the “special military selection”, or travel there. The western media is hysterical so I just wanted to check in with people who are down to earth and connected to reality lol… If I tell someone here in CA I plan to visit Russia they ask me if I want to die LOL . Like Americans being held in concentration camps and subjected to public executions,” wrote one American who later asked how to obtain a visa.
Some expats are apparently also planning to relocate to the country in search of careers.
“In light of the recent sanctions, is it still possible to get an IT job in Russia as an expat?” one man wrote on a Telegram channel for foreigners in Russia, asking about one of the Russian sectors hit hardest by the consequences of war.
The question led to an animated discussion about cyber expats in Russia – and then to Edward Snowden, whom one foreign commentator referred to as a great success story, a foreigner who has “assimilated” well and is now “enjoying the new his life”.
For many who frequent migrant-oriented channels, the fallout from the war seemed to hit closer to home soon after Vladimir Putin announced his mobilization, with frenzied posts from foreigners married to Russian men now facing the prospect death on the battlefield.
“There is a disconnection.“
Even then, however, the responses they received were a mixture of alarm and indifference.
“The mobilization is only for people who have served in the past and not for new recruits,” reassured one expatriate, insisting that Russian defense officials will keep their word.
“It’s official and a kind reminder to you, people who get Russian citizenship are enlisted in the war, even if they have no military experience (a friend of mine is in this situation),” wrote a Finnish expatriate.
Others volunteered for the war as a way to curry favor with the Russian government and solve their own housing woes.
“Those willing to join the Russian army for 1 year will be able to get citizenship faster,” noted one commenter in a thread about the possibility of conscripting foreigners.
(The suggestion was echoed by a company that specializes in relocation services for those hoping to move to Russia, though they declined to comment for this story.)
Marcus Hudson of Let’s Russia, a company that specializes in providing visas to foreigners hoping to visit the country, told the Daily Beast that there was definitely “more anxiety” among would-be travelers after the mobilization order.
“When the mobilization hit, that’s when people started asking about security, for sure. Before that, … no one asked about security,” he said, adding that he did not hesitate to advise some travelers to postpone their trips. Many others asked for refunds after the walkout was announced, he said.
The majority of those now seeking visas are those who have family and friends within Russia or other connections that require them to visit.
Hudson says he was honest with other prospective travelers, telling them, “As a foreigner, you should be relatively safe, but I can’t guarantee that at this point.”
There are “a few” who still express a desire to visit despite alarming news coverage of what’s happening there, he said.
“Foreigners believe what is officially reported, but there is a disconnect. I don’t think some of the foreigners who want to go to Russia, especially if they have nothing to do with Russia, understand that disconnect,” he said. “They don’t even know it exists and it’s possible… ‘Wait the government said one thing and did another?’
Even the most “hard-core” expats who were “very comfortable [in Russia] until that” he saw the mobilization order as “negotiated,” he said.
I honestly told people, “You know what, with this latest announcement you might want to wait. Why do not you know [what’s going to happen].”
“Very, very few people who don’t have relationships [to Russia] they are applying for a visa,” he said after Putin’s call.
The “volume of visas is so low” that a meeting between representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry and travel companies last month was attended by only three companies, he said, compared to about 15 companies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most of those who frequented the expat channels seemed well aware of Putin’s all-out war and its myriad ramifications, but some offered what could only be described as chilling.
“We all lose is [sic] life’s path sometimes, but it’s never too late to try again. I urge people to contact Vladimir Putin on the Russian government website and tell him how sick you are of war, but be polite and respectful. Stopping war doesn’t mean you’re weak, it means you’re strong enough to admit you were wrong. I believe Vladimir Putin will do the right thing because he loves his country and he loves his people,” wrote one man on a dating and networking group in Moscow.
The message was accompanied by a photo of Red Square illuminated by a rainbow.